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Thursday, March 29, 2012 02:57 pm

Civil union adoption fight gets heated

Bill would exempt religious adoption agencies from law

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More than nine months after Illinois’ civil union law took effect, state lawmakers are still arguing over what it means. That’s because of a controversial measure to exempt religious adoption agencies from the law.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, sponsors Senate Bill 2495, which would allow a religious adoption agency to not place children in a home if the agency believes doing so would compromise its religious beliefs. Discussion on the bill in a March 23 legislative hearing nearly escalated into a shouting match between two lawmakers over whether performing adoption and foster care services is a religious practice. The three-member panel ultimately held the bill in committee, where it may receive a second hearing in the future.

McCarter’s bill arises from a June 2011 lawsuit filed by the Springfield, Peoria, Joliet and Belleville dioceses of Catholic Charities, each of which formerly contracted with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to perform adoption and foster care services. The dioceses sued DCFS for refusing to renew their state contracts after the agency declared the dioceses violated the civil union law by not placing children in same-sex households.

In August, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled against Catholic Charities, which later dropped the suit. The Peoria and Belleville dioceses set up independent nonprofit agencies to take over their caseloads, while the Springfield and Joliet dioceses began transitioning their cases back to DCFS.

McCarter told the committee on Friday that the civil union law was originally intended to protect religious adoption agencies.

“My point is today, we have the civil unions – I understand that – but at the same time, we’ve taken away the religious freedom,” McCarter said.

Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, questioned whether performing foster care and adoption services with state money is a religious practice

“I’m a Catholic, and I’m trying to figure out how a decision by a charitable group related to my church to administer adoptions on behalf of the state … in any way impedes my religious freedom as a Catholic,” Harmon said. “I don’t see the connection between the two.”

At one point during the debate, Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston, and Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, began talking over one another in a heated argument on the bill. Brady, who lost to Pat Quinn in the 2010 election for governor, is on the Catholic Diocese of Peoria’s board of directors.

If McCarter’s bill were to pass, it would open the door for religious groups like Catholic Charities to resume contracting with the state while continuing to not place children in same-sex households. Steven Roach, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, said his group might then consider resuming foster care and adoption services.

“I never say never, but we’d have to think long and hard about that,” Roach said. “Passage of that legislation would finally honor the original intent of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection (and Civil Union) Act.”

Roach said his group’s 290 cases would likely finish transferring back to the state by the end of this week.

McCarter requested a second hearing for his bill so the sponsor of the civil union law, Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, could testify about the original intent of the law. During the 2010 legislative debate on civil unions, Koehler attempted to pass an amendment to the law similar to McCarter’s bill, but the amendment failed. Harmon, who chairs the committee, did not commit to another hearing for the bill.

Zach Wichmann, director of governmental relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, told the committee on Friday that the Catholic Charities actually object to adoption by unmarried couples, rather than adoption by same-sex couples. Under Illinois law, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions but cannot marry.

Mary Dixon, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said groups that perform services with state money become arms of the state, so turning away same-sex couples or referring them to other agencies amounts to “state-sanctioned discrimination.”

“The referral is a denial of service, and the agency is a state actor,” Dixon said. “That’s discrimination.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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